Pulling teeth: Freedom of information in Colombia

Locating and extracting information from the Colombian government is not only like pulling teeth, but it is like a dentist trying to pull a patient’s tooth in the dark, in a large room, with hundreds of patients, only one of whom has a sore tooth! “Mas Informacion Mas Derechos” is a project that was launched last year that seeks to improve transparency within Colombian democracy by creating an environment where accessing information isn’t so difficult or so painful.

Launched in March 2009 with the support of the British Embassy, the project has been working to publicize the importance of free and easy access to information, to encourage public debate over the issue, with the goal of eventually passing a freedom of information law in Colombia.

Marcela Restrepo, the project’s coordinator, from the the country’s NGO Transparancia por Colombia, told Colombia Reports that, “The issue of access to information is of vital importance,” and is a key indicator of the “quality” of the country’s democracy.

However, for Restrepo, Colombia has a long way to go to improve its attitude towards freedom of information.

According to Restrepo, decrees and laws do in exist in Colombia that guarantee its citizens access to certain information from the government. However, she describes them as being so convoluted and non-comprehensive that they are effectively “impossible” to navigate and deal with.

As a result, she explained, “In practice, government officials do not follow through with the laws, despite it being written,” resulting in a situation where it is nearly impossible to access any particular piece of information.

The project, funded by the British Embassy and carried out by a handful of Colombian civil society organizations, seeks to “homogenize” the current codes and legislations into a single, comprehensive national law, that clarifies who is responsible for delivering public information, and what obligations they must adhere to.

According to Restrepo, the project is seeking to capitalize on best-case practices from other Latin American countries, and learn how to effectively introduce such changes into their country.

Restrepo says, however, that there is a long way to go until their goals are achieved. Currently, the project is in its “publicizing and planning phases.”

One key component in their ability to reach their goal is to gain key supporters within the government. According to Restrepo, the “Mas Informacion Mas Derechos” project is seeking to identify recently elected congressmen who would be keen to support such an initiative.

According to Restrepo, they have already begun working with “John Sudarsky, from the Green Party, Rodrigo Lara, from the Cambio Radical party, Jual Sanyo, from the Partido de la U, and we are working to get close to others as well.”

To Restrepo, transparent information is critical to Colombia’s democracy. It is not only government information that they seek to create access to, but also information regarding political parties and public companies.

For political parties, the issue is in their sources of funding, she explained. Publicizing the funding sources of political parties is extremely important to Colombia, especially given its “narco problem.”

As for companies, Restrepo highlights the importance of opening up information about “companies who operate in the public services sector, such as mobile and fixed telephone operators, health providers, and electricity companies.”

While they are confident that their mission will be successful, Restrepo expects to have a tough fight ahead of her. According to Restrepo, “The conformity amongst current congressmen worries us; many congressman who were elected are affiliated with the traditional political powers of Colombia, traditional and corrupt, and with them, it may be difficult to push through this type of law through Congress.”

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